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108 Front Street
P.O. Box 53
Cowan, TN 37318-0053

Cowan Railroad Museum
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History of the Pusher District

Cowan is and was a railroad town. Nestled at the foot of the formidable crossing of the saddle in the approach to The Cumberland Plateau, Cowan is the base of engines that assist trains over that saddle. We call them “pushers”, since that is what they do. This activity has been going on at this place for almost 150 years on exactly the same roadbed and through the same (though enlarged) tunnel finished in February of 1853. Trains often need assistance in both direction to the tunnel at the summit and always have. Original engines of course were steam engines, and small ones at that but this grade required specially built engines. In later years, down-graded steam engines were pressed into this service out of Cowan, to Sherwood and back. This interesting operational need was a designed-in feature deemed less expensive in the long run than a longer route with lesser grades. Not every train needs a push. The current I 24 is located mostly in that secondary location also surveyed in the 1840’s.

The railroad was built by the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad (N&C) that later became the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway (NC&StL), then The Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N), then “Family Lines” which later became the current CSX Transportation. At one point the railroad in Cowan employed over 300 people. Trackwork and facilities were extensive compared to today. Traces of the old arrangement can be seen from the air.

A relatively busy branch line was built parallel to the approach to half way to the tunnel to tap commercial resources there. This was originally the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, later known as the Tracy City branch of the NC&StL. It earned the nick-name “Mountain Goat” for the way it climbed the edge of the escarpment from Cowan up to Sewanee at the top. Seven miles of track with 20 degree turns and 4% grades, it was a tough piece of railroad.

Today’s trains are longer and faster than ever before and the pusher engines have kept pace. Pusher engines have ranged the entire scope of locomotives over the years, from the original “Big Mary”, to today’s three axle high horsepower units. There is nothing special about the pusher engines used since about 1946. The operation of them is special however, and special rules govern their use. The pusher engines wait on a side track in the small yard adjacent to the mainline and crews (2 persons per shift) are in constant radio contact with the division’s dispatcher located in Jacksonville, Florida! This way they know what to plan for and where to spot themselves for a speedy connection for the push. They may be required on the Sherwood side of the mountain and therefore can be seen running light in that direction in Cowan. Trains running without aid of pushers are allowed forty miles per hour through town by local ordinance, this is otherwise sixty MPH railroad.

Pushing a train is a balancing act since the trains going over the mountain crest within the Cumberland Tunnel. Slack can “run out”, break a coupling and stop the train. It is unpleasant and difficult to fix if the break is inside the tunnel. Pushers are not allowed in the tunnel if it is occupied by a train. It is where the “Mountain Goat” crossed over the portal of the tunnel on a fine small stone arch deck bridge.

Please respect the no trespassing signs of CSX and stay off the tracks. The train crews are friendly but just doing a job and it is dangerous to distract them with more than a friendly greeting. Sometimes they are able to acknowledge your enthusiasm, sometimes not….  Railroads are dangerous places: *Look both ways* and *Safety First, *will add to your enjoyment of the drama that unfolds every day at Cowan.

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